Once Upon a Time in Los Angeles: Kathryn Harrison’s “On Sunset”

By Dinah LenneyNovember 14, 2018

Once Upon a Time in Los Angeles: Kathryn Harrison’s “On Sunset”

On Sunset by Kathryn Harrison

THERE’S SOME DEBATE about what Joan Didion meant when she wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Did she leave out two words? Did she mean to say, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live with ourselves”? Maybe she did. And maybe the statement is true — of course it is. But also we tell ourselves stories in order to connect; to carry on with some faith that it matters if we do. And in order to insist that “the past isn’t over,” in the words of Faulkner, who also wrote, “I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world.”

This would seem to be the case with Kathryn Harrison, who has mined the events of her life across genre. But say you haven’t read her before. Say her new memoir, On Sunset, is your introduction to the author. Too bad about these parents, you might think to yourself; too bad about the father gone entirely missing; and that mother — so vain and selfish and mean. And even so. Even so, you might also suppose, once you’ve finished the book, what a wonderful childhood: to grow up in that rambling old mansion on that famous Boulevard with those dear, funny old people (her mother’s parents), eccentric, doting, storytellers, both, and willing to tell the same astonishing stories over and over.

Of course if you have read Harrison — the memoirs, in particular — you know the truth: the circumstances of her youth were far from ideal. Of her 16 books, half are nonfiction; of those eight, four, at least, are the stuff of her life, the most famous being The Kiss, in which she bravely — beautifully, excruciatingly — recalls her incestuous affair with her father, who left when she was a baby, and with whom she was reunited when she was 20 years old. You only have to read that one or another, The Mother Knot, about coming to terms with maternal neglect, to understand that the truth is painfully complicated: again and again, in the Faulkner way, Harrison has artfully reckoned with severe emotional trauma. Even here, in On Sunset, in what amounts to a cameo role, her mother is withholding and cold. Which is to say that the story isn’t a fairy tale, quite — although what’s a fairy tale without danger and dread between the lines? More on that in a bit.

For now, the point is, if only by virtue of her parents’ absence, On Sunset rings true to what we already know. True, too, to the nature of childhood itself, full of whimsy and hope and awe, all the more so, maybe, when an only child and her elderly grandparents have each other’s undivided attention and love. And when there are stories — because stories, why ever we tell them, are so much a part of childhood, aren’t they? And maybe that’s the key to the charm of this book: so many stories, all true, all inspired by young Kathryn’s desire to hear them. “Again?” says her grandmother, when the little girl asks for one she already knows. “What do you want to hear about that for?” But the girl knows she doesn’t really mean it. Moreover, her grandmother’s trove of documents, letters, photos, newspaper clippings, a selection of which are included in this volume, is prodigious. As for her grandfather, he never demurs. For instance: “Tell me them again,” young Kathryn commands, wanting to hear what he did for a living before he left the old world for the new.

“Tell you what again.”

“The jobs, all the jobs you had in London.”

“Well, let’s see […],” he begins. And if he leaves something out, “Go back,” she insists. And so he does. “He never says it’s silly to ask him to recite what I already know,” she adds.

In this way, Harrison braids her material: the story of her childhood, the story of her grandparents’ lives. Margaret Esme Sassoon Benjamin, an heiress, was born in 1899 to merchant-class Jews (they were considered “the Rothschilds of the East”), raised in Shanghai, and educated in boarding schools in London. Harold Jacobs, nine years her senior, though also English and Jewish, grew up poor; sought his fortune in Alaska; fought in the Great War; worked as a fur trapper, a bookkeeper, and a salesman; and eventually wound up in the Southland. He didn’t meet Margaret, his second wife, until 1941, when he was 51. By that time, at almost 42 and having “spurned” a great number of suitors, she, too, was living in Los Angeles (what were the odds?). Obviously, they got married; but it’s how they circuitously found their way to California — and each other — that provides romance and suspense, as well as a scaffolding for the events of the present, in which they are raising the only daughter of their only daughter, and, on the tightest of budgets, attempting to hold on to their beloved house. What happened to the money? Well, such are the myriad pleasures of this book — it’s not just memoir, not just family history, not just a meditation on culture and class, but a mystery, too.

Also a Valentine — to Mr. and Mrs. Harold Jacobs, 11027 Sunset Boulevard (to 11027, itself), to a way of life, which, even then, a half a century ago, was hilariously and delightfully old-fashioned. “I curtsy when introduced to adults,” Harrison writes:

I endure mustard plasters, cod liver oil, and other torments generally imagined to be reserved for children left behind in a previous century. I am not allowed chewing gum, carbonated beverages, nail varnish, or to go to bed with damp hair. Peanut butter does not exist. I don’t know what Love, American Style is, or why it in particular among television programs other people talk about has earned my grandmother’s opprobrium. I’d trade Christmas and a birthday for permission to watch The Brady Bunch

Poor girl. But this is the stuff of stories, right? No wonder she loves hearing and telling them. No wonder she grew up to be a writer. (That’s the happy ending — for the reader, anyway.) And this time she has written a story — many stories, many characters, and a heroine, too (herself, that is) — to live alongside those by authors who made all of us want more: Dickens, Barrie, C. S. Lewis. And Lewis Carroll, too, who, in this account, is one of her favorites. Of course. When her grandfather builds her a chair in the top of an avocado tree, she tells him, “I love it. I love it more than anything. More than my bicycle.” And what does she do? She spends the day there with just “the right book”: Alice in Wonderland. “I barely make it down by bathtime,” she writes. And when he’s tucking her into bed that night,

I find his hand in the dark and fit mine into it.

“My head goes through the top.”

“Yes,” he says, and he asks me what I saw.

“Everything,” I say. “I saw the beach. I saw the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier.”

He laughs. “I don’t think so,” he says.

I know I did. And I tell him all the other things I saw too. The Farmers Market and the Griffith Observatory and the oozing La Brea Tar Pits. There wasn’t a thing I didn’t see.

In that last sentence, the end of a section, lies the portent — the danger, the dread, that lurks between the lines throughout. As with the best stories, whatever the genre — fiction, nonfiction, fairy tale — it turns out On Sunset is more than one thing: not simply nostalgic, but tinged with anticipated sorrow and grief. Harrison’s touch is light (she’s a gorgeous writer), but, finally, notwithstanding the age of the narrator, her book is for grown-ups, and its adult concerns extend beyond the fate of a house. Though she emphatically objects, young Kathryn knows the truth: her grandfather is old, nearly 80, when, she writes, “I ask, I wheedle, I beg, he concedes.” She watches from the side of the swimming pool as “he blows all the air from his lungs and allows himself to sink to the bottom of the deep end, where he sits over the drain, legs crossed like my own.” And then:

I don’t know why I ask him to do this terrible thing, only that I can’t help it. By the time he pushes off from the bottom — the water flat as glass, his legs straight like a man’s — returns to the surface, and gasps, I am crying.

I never see the white hair on his chest, or how that chest is bony where other fathers have muscles. I don’t see the wrinkles or liver spots or fingers gnarled by arthritis. What I do is, I add up his two legs to make a second heart, should the first one fail.

Oh no, thinks the reader, oh no, oh no, this lovely grandpa, the only good father she has, is going to die. And he is, of course (that’s what fathers and mothers, good ones and bad, always do), although, mercifully, not in these pages, not under our watch. The author has spared us: On Sunset, as wise and all-seeing as it turns out to be, is also a mostly happy story. One which I am wholly grateful to have read, and whole-heartedly recommend. It will, as with the best, make you laugh and cry. And it will make you remember how it was to be a child. And that children are listening. And that whatever we tell ourselves for whatever reasons, we tell each other stories in order to live.


Dinah Lenney is the author of The Object Parade and an editor-at-large at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Dinah Lenney is the author of The Object Parade (2014) and Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir (2007), and co-editor of Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (co-editor, 2015). She serves as core faculty in the Bennington Writing Seminars, and as an editor-at-large for LARB. Her latest book is Coffee (Bloomsbury, 2020).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.